For the inexperienced, snorkeling at night can be an understandably worrisome prospect. In my case, the idea wasn't far short of terrifying.

Aside from the standard concerns about sharks being more active after dark, I think most of my unease involved not being able to see well, and the thought of some imposing sea creature suddenly appearing out of the inky black had me downright frightened.

Most of that anxiety vanished, though, not long after arriving at the Fair Wind office near Keauhou Bay, where I checked in for the company's Night Manta Snorkel & Dive Adventure. The sheer number of cheerful customers milling around the dock helped to calm me -- as did the building excitement at the idea of actually swimming with manta rays -- but it was wriggling into the snug-fitting wetsuit that finally put me at ease. Looking so ridiculous and feeling scared just didn't make much sense.

Mesmerizing mantas

A manta ray in HawaiiPretrip anxiety seems to be something of the norm for folks scheduled on the manta ray adventure. Fair Wind Sales Operation Manager Marleen Mareko, who was born and raised in Hawaii, told me she was "really intimidated" on her first tour years ago. So much so, in fact, that she brought along her husband and father, both experienced night divers, for support.

"But as soon as I got into the water and the manta rays came around, it was like I just forgot about everything else," Mareko said. "They're just so mesmerizing. It's very exciting to be so close to something so huge yet so graceful."

Throw in a 10-minute boat ride, along with the time to properly situate my mask, snorkel and fins, and my own experience was very much like what Mareko described.

Fair Wind has designed something called a "manta float," a highly flexible ladder made of Styrofoam and rope that is deployed behind the firm's 55-foot Hula Kai hydrofoil catamaran. Tour participants snorkel a few feet out to the float, squeeze up next to the person in front of them and grab on.

Attracted by strategically angled lights on both the boat and the manta float itself, concentrated gatherings of tiny plankton begin rising toward the surface around the snorkelers. Before long, the manta rays, which unlike stingrays have no dangerous stingers, begin to arrive and feed in slow-motion circles, rhythmically rising toward the floating tangle of enthralled viewers before diving again to restart the process.

Before plunging in, all of us were warned that the manta rays, some as large as 14 feet from wing tip to wing tip, would swim straight toward us, appearing as if a collision were imminent, only to turn off at the last second.

That bit of info was one I certainly appreciated several minutes later, when the creatures' white underbellies and huge mouths were seemingly inches from my face. Even so, I felt entirely at ease throughout the mind-boggling experience and, utterly spellbound by the mantas' elegance and beauty, had no interest in quitting when it was time to leave.

Broad appeal

Snorkeling with manta raysHighly accessible for everyone onboard, including young children, older adventurers and inexperienced snorkelers, the Fair Wind manta excursion is building a reputation among Hawaii experts as an exceptional encounter available to a wide range of markets.

Shauna Hyswick, the Honolulu-based project development manager for Apple Vacations, said the tour operator's clients continually rave about the tour and, based on her own experience, the trip is a "must do" when on the Big Island.

"I was a little uncertain at first because I had my parents with me and was thinking, 'Is my mom going to be able to get in there and do this?'" Hyswick said. "But they both were just fine and felt absolutely comfortable in the water at that time of night, and we all thought it was just awesome."

Fair Wind will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year and is known for first-rate service on all of its tour offerings; the hot soup and fresh bread available post-mantas on the night cruise is a good example.

A purveyor of daytime snorkeling excursions, as well, the company takes clients to stunning Kealakekua Bay for access to some of the most beautiful coral in Hawaii and more secluded marine sanctuaries farther south. The morning snorkel cruise options feature both a family-friendly atmosphere and trips that cater to adults.

Commissionable at 10% to agents, Fair Wind's Night Manta Snorkel & Dive Adventure is priced at $99 a person -- children must be at least 5 years old -- and comes with a "Manta Pledge" that enables customers who don't see mantas to join another day's tour free of charge.

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